Brooklyn band The Spring Standards would seem to have a lot going for it. The three-piece is made up of especially talented multi-instrumentalists, with multiple lead singers and a knack for moving vocal harmonies. The band was on Conan O'Brien's show in 2008, after its Rhett Miller-produced debut came out. A filmmaker is working on a documentary about a recent tour.
But at the same time, things aren't blowing up, exactly: Band members used Kickstarter to fund their forthcoming live album. They couldn't afford to hire a publicist for their current tour, so they resorted to doing their own tour PR, which isn't easy when you're hitting a dozen cities.
"It's such a mystery," says vocalist and keyboardist Heather Robb. "We've had conversations with people we trust who say, ‘What's it going to take to get you to where you need to be?' And I wish I had an answer."
The Spring Standards began in earnest in 2008 with the release of that first EP, but Robb and bandmates James Cleare and James Smith have been making music much longer. The three met when they were teenagers, living around the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. They played together in a band for a time, then set out for college (Cleare for music, Robb and Smith for acting).
"We never fell out of touch, but then we all moved to New York — not together, we just all ended up there — and we got back together and started playing, and it hadn't gone anywhere," says Robb.
At any given time, Robb might be playing keys or melodica; Cleare might be on guitar or bass; Smith may or may not be playing trumpet. Where most groups have a set approach to working and writing, The Spring Standards' versatility makes for a wide range of methods.
"We've been both praised and criticized for really being all over the map in terms of genre," says Robb. "And I think a lot of that has to do with [the fact that] there's really no equation. It's almost like we're miners and we're dropping down and we don't know if we're going to find gold or diamonds or coal. You never really know what you're going to find with a song.
"We do all wear a lot of hats, and we're all songwriters."
Having multiple singers is a blessing for a band, and The Spring Standards takes full advantage: Each member takes over lead vocals at some point. But Robb insists that it's not really a matter of being stacked with overwhelming vocal talent.
"I love the singing voice of everyone in my band. I would say, though, I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," she says. "I think that any one of us on our own, we're not exceptional singers. But there's something that happens when our voices sing together that I can't explain. We've been singing together for so long, it's just a natural thing in my life."
Being on the cusp of big success, but still coming from a do-it-yourself point of view, the trio isn't afraid to take on some novel projects. Earlier this year, the band took on a tour that consisted mostly of house shows — that was the tour on which they were followed by a filmmaker.
"At this point, we've made three fully fan-funded records," says Robb. "We had a summer that had some shows but not a ton, so we started brainstorming. We'd seen more and more bands doing house tours, ranging from people you've never heard of to David Bazan, who's made a whole career on basically playing house parties."
They went to their Kickstarter donors and offered to play house shows; the smallest, Robb says, came in Birmingham, Ala., where the band played for two people one afternoon en route to another show. In Pittsburgh, in addition to a show at Club Café, they played two house shows, including one at the home of Penguins play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald, who found the band via a friend and has since become a supporter.
"In the case of Pittsburgh, we're really lucky to have Paul on our side," says Robb. "We have a few other connections in other cities, too. I think that's a reflection of how we've built our fan base, and I think it's also a reflection of the state of the music industry. It's really a case of building fan by fan."
For now, that's how the band will continue to do it — because, Robb says, she's not sure there's a better way.
"It is a puzzling position to be in," she says. "All we know right now is, we just need to keep going — for the fans, for us, for the time and energy we've put into this, for the feedback we've gotten and felt encouraged by."